The International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) launched its latest report “Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force," at the Houses of Parliament last week.
The panel event hosted by the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils MP Paul Scully comprised Frances Harrison and Nina Tavakoli of the ITJP, Dr Rachel Seoighe, Ann Hannah of Freedom From Torture and Dr Sutha Nadarajah of SOAS University.
Opening the discussion, Dr Suthaharan Nadarajah highlighted a systemic failure to accept ongoing torture in Sri Lanka by international institutions.
“It is in this context of habitual denial that reports from groups like the ITJP and Freedom From Torture are so important in combatting this narrative of denial.”
Speaking at the event former BBC South Asia Correspondent Frances Harrison, said the evidence was clear that military intelligence was involved in abduction and torture of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Dispelling the argument that it was a small handful of individuals responsible for torture and abduction, Ms Harrison reiterated that torture and abductions were systemic in Sri Lanka, adding,
“There is now an acceptance that military intelligence was involved in abductions. The STF were, the TID and the CID. Its humanely not possible for a small group of perpetrators to have done so many abductions over so many years.
Adding to the discussion Barrister Nina Tavakoli of the Red Lion Chambers, highlighted that the majority of victims she had interviewed were young men who would have been children at the end of the war in 2009. Ms Tavakoli added that in many cases the victims worked in human rights, worked with political parties or attended Tamil memorialisation events.
“The argument that they are LTTE cadres goes away, any national security threat argument goes away. Throughout the torture racist language is used. There is no doubt these individuals are being targeted because they are Tamil,” she said.
Ms Tavakoli added that even when victims flee Sri Lanka and seek refuge in another country like the UK, they are still surveilled and their family in Sri Lanka is often detained and assaulted.
The Advocacy and Policy Director for Freedom From Torture Ann Hannah said, stressed concern at the international community’s silence with regards to accountability in Sri Lanka.
Warning that the continued impunity was leading to increasing torture in Sri Lanka, Ms Hannah said,
“We are seeing increasing numbers of torture since 2016. It is absolutely devastating for the survivors that we work with. We are concerned about the way that the current lack of impunity plays into abuses.”
Lamenting on going denial of torture in Sri Lanka, Ms Hannah added,
“None of us here would be naïve enough to believe that when a conflict as complex as what happened in Sri Lanka ends, the structures that carried out torture are dismantled overnight.”
Ms Hannah further noted that the British government had been involved in training Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force that was responsible for torture, and called for greater transparency with regards the level of training provided.
She added that the victims primary incentive for sharing their story was to secure accountability as the only way to prevent abuses from happening again.
“Sri Lanka is not on the top of the news cycle at the moment. However accountability in Sri Lanka is important to those conflicts which are at the top of the news cycle,” she concluded.
Dr Rachel Seoighe, author of War, Denial and Nation-Building in Sri Lanka: After the End, highlighted that even institutions set up by Sri Lanka under the premise of reconciliation can be a “means of denial.”
“Even those that appear to be addressing the issue. They absorb the outcry, launch an investigation and deliver nothing. The Sirisena government is trying to but time by promising progress and not delivering. In this way time facilitates denial.
Dr Seoighe further stressed concern about the UK’s involvement in training the tortuer complicit Sri Lanka STF forces, adding,
“This is a police force that has engaged in violations against Tamils including setting them alight by the road. The UK government speaking a language of reform and reconciliation becomes a way of facilitating denial.”
The event ended with a question and answer question session covering topics relating to ensuring accountability, ongoing miltiarisation of the North-East fo Sri Lanka and British engagement with Sri Lanka.